Sunday, April 1, 2012

Our calving routine

Calving heifers is one of those tasks where if you ask 10 people how to do it, you'll probably get 11.5 answers. The best way to go about it varies dramatically depending on location, environment, facilities, how much help there is, the quality of the help, the livestock, the weather, and numerous other variables.
Some people keep everything in a corral at night, and in a larger lot during the day. Others sort their heavies (the heifers they think are closest to calving) off at night and put them in the corral, and everyone else stays out in the lot. Some people stay up with them all night, others just check them periodically, and a few say they're on their own if they calve after 10:00 p.m. Some people have lots of problems calving heifers, others don't.
Here's what we do. We put our heifers in a 20 acre lot, and have them water out of our corrals. This gets them comfortable with going into the corral, where our shed and calving pen also happen to be located. If a heifer is comfortable going somewhere, it makes your job a whole lot easier to get her back there when she needs help calving. They stay in this lot, and have access to the corral, 24-7. Most calve on their own in the lot.
We check our heifers every three hours, around the clock. We all arrange our schedules so that someone is always here during the day to make sure all is well in the calving department. My brother, dad, mom and myself each take a night/morning shift (10:00p.m., 1:00p.m., 4:00a.m., and 7:00a.m.), and are responsible for that three hour shift if anyone is calving.
To be a little more specific, we cruise out to the lot on a 4-wheeler with our flashlight that is closer to being a stadium light in hand at night, slowly drive through all the girls, checking every one for signs of labor. If all is well, you can go back to bed or on with your day. But, if a heifer is in labor, you're on duty to make sure she has a healthy, live calf for the next three hours. Depending on how far along she is, this may mean checking her in 15 minutes or in two hours, and can make for some long nights at times. It's also not uncommon for more than one to be calving at once, and you're on duty for all of them. Everyone's schedule gets all messed up during calving.
You check, without fail, come blizzard, howling winds, exhaustion, and anything else you can imagine. Our heifers come first this time of year, period, amen.

When you're done with your shift, you report any new births, why someone is locked in the corral, etc... (wildlife sightings are not required) on this dry erase board, located on our porch. This lets the next person know how many new calves should be in the lot, if the calving pen is full, not to tag the skunk, and just helps with communication between tired people.

During the day, we are generally driving by the lot often enough that we don't keep a strict three hour regiment for checking them. Everyone just pays attention and keeps an eye on things. We are also out tagging any new calves, sorting out pairs, and shuffling the odds and ends that always result from calving heifers. So far this year our odds and ends consist of one heifer that doesn't like her calf. We have to put her in a small pen three times a day, then sit there and watch while her calf sucks. It's tedious, and irritating, but so far better than bottle feeding the little guy.
Every evening we feed the bunch their daily ration of hay. While not proven (especially not this year so far), we've found that feeding in the evening reduces the number of calves we have at night. This may be due to the heifer's filling up, laying down and relaxing. Highly scientific, I know, but it does seem to work for us most of the time, and you will try a lot of things to reduce how many nights you have to stay up waiting for a calf to be born!
It is pretty much a full time job calving heifers. When your future cowherd is on the line, it's worth a lot of time and effort to keep them alive and healthy. It's also just the right thing to do in caring properly for them, and calving season is one time of the year when I become especially irritated at those who say ranchers don't care for their animals, and are cruel to them. I've often wished I had one of those individuals with me on a particularly busy, cold, blustery night when you work tirelessly to save calves, keep them warm, healthy, and paired up. When a couple are on your porch, another in the bath tub, and there is enough milk replacer spilled in your house that it would be mistaken for a crack house if the authorities showed up. When, no matter how cold, wet and physically exhausted you get, you don't stop because of how much you do care for the cattle. Oh yeah, then I would want them to stay for the few days following such a night as you continue on.
Anyway, off my soapbox. We are just finishing up our second week of calving, and are just over half done. It has gone exceptionally well, especially with all of us home this year, which hasn't been the case for the last several years. Hope if you calve, your routine is going great too!

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